If any film could never conceivably have a sequel, Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel would be it. For starters, Brügger is now banned from entering North Korea after he engineered an embarrassing punking of the regime. However, it inspired Ulrich Larsen, an average Danish fellow, who hatched a scheme to infiltrate the DPRK regime. Naturally, he reached out to Brügger, who documented his real-life espionage in The Mole, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.
In retrospect, Larsen’s plan was simple but sound. He just started attending meetings of Denmark’s North Korean friendship association, making himself helpful. Like the US Communist Party during the Cold War, the higher-ups closely collaborate with the DPRK government. Like a cult, the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) looks for insecure underachievers who can find a sense of purpose serving the royal Kim dynasty.
Enter Alejandro Cao de Benos, the President of the KFA, who takes Larsen under his wing. Eventually, the Spanish government bars him from leaving the country, but he maintains his position of influence within the DPRK regime. He challenges Larsen to reel in a big investor, so Brügger recruits “Mr. James,” a former foreign legionnaire and coke dealer, who became a legit but highly adventurous businessman. Over the course of several years, they travel to North Korea, Cambodia, Uganda, and tellingly Beijing, for a blockbuster deal to produce high-grade missiles and meth in Africa that would also deliver arms to the Syrian regime and import oil into the DPRK, circumventing international sanctions.
Brügger’s expose is absolutely mind-blowing and chilling as heck. While there was “no smoking gun” in Red Chapel, Larsen and Mr. James uncover absolutely damning evidence of official DPRK state criminality, including a literal price list for armaments like SCUD missiles. It is also a genuine white-knuckle thriller, because the tension grows exponentially as the two Moles penetrate deeper into North Korea’s web of intrigue.
Red Chapel and The Ambassador, Brügger largely removes himself as a presence in The Mole, so as not to overshadow Larsen and Mr. James. It was the right call. They had nerves of steel and expose real violations of international law. Frankly, people in the U.S. government should see this film and act on it, as the Danish authorities already are. (For one thing, Cao de Benos really ought to be on Magnitsky sanction lists.)
In recent years, Brügger has been the gutsiest filmmaker working in the documentary medium, but The Mole probably tops his previous work. The word “shocking” is not hyperbole for this documentary. Yet, simply as a film, it is totally suspenseful and absorbing. For the record, it aired as a three-part television docuseries in Denmark, but the feature cut is tight, taut, and seamless, with no obvious holes. Recommended to the highest degree, The Mole screens in-person again tomorrow (11/15) and online (11/14-11/28) as part of DOC NYC ’21.